Novak Djokovic targets missing piece in Grand Slam puzzle

With the French Open just days away, Chris Goldsmith asks whether the world number one can put the gloss on an already glittering career

Image: David Vincent / AP/Press Association Images

The second grand slam of the 2016 tennis season is only days away and it's time for the clay court experts to show their tennis skills on the red dirt of Roland Garros.

Novak Djokovic has been the dominant force on the ATP Tour and will be very difficult to defeat once again, especially in best of 5 set matches. The Serbian world number 1 has suffered a couple of defeats on clay recently, most notably his 3-6 3-6 loss at the weekend to his great rival Andy Murray.

Novak though is entitled to  have small dips in form and with 29 Masters Series events and 11 Grand Slam titles to his name Djokovic will be the overwhelming favourite to continue his dominance in 2016.  Though his confidence and consistency have taken him to a new level of superiority in recent years he is still yet to win the French Open title.

Djokovic lost out to Stan Wawrinka in last year's Roland Garros final. Image: Jon Buckle / EMPICS Sport

Andy Murray will be the 2nd seed at Roland Garros this year. The British tennis star leapfrogged Roger Federer in the ATP rankings on Monday after his Rome Masters win and therefore will avoid having to play Novak Djokovic until the French Open final, if indeed both reach that far. The Scot has really stepped up his clay court game over the last couple of seasons and looks set to be a big contender for the French Open title in 2016. He now has the added bonus of a clay court victory under his belt against Novak Djokovic which he so badly needed especially having struggled badly against Novak in recent times. 

It looked as if Andy was never going to break his run of losses but having come close in Madrid a few weeks ago, Murray caused the upset versus the world number 1 in Rome. With plenty of match practice under his belt and motivation back high after a mediocre hard-court season after the birth of his daughter, Murray has a big chance of winning his 1st French Open title in the coming few weeks. Fitness could be his biggest concern as long matches on clay can cause him problems.

Nine times former champion Rafa Nadal is also having a resurgent 2016. The Spanish tennis star is in solid clay court form. Rafa's match record of W 70, L 2 shows how much he loves the courts at Roland Garros and shows his dominance of this tournament over the last decade.

Nadal is back up to ATP 5 and number 3 in the ATP Race showing he is on an upward curve  in 2016 and confidence is returning. The 5-7, 3-6, 1-6 loss to Djokovic in 2015 must have hurt badly but Rafa seems to be in a happier and more relaxed place than last year. Could the 'Man from Mallorca' win an unprecedented 10th Roland Garros crown?  The draw on Friday could be all important to Nadal's chances.

Nadal has been involved in off-court issues this season, including taking legal action against a former French government minister. Image: Jon Buckle / EMPICS Sport 

Roger Federer will not feature due to his ongoing struggles with injuries and the latest of which is a back afflication which may hhave had a hand in his setback in Rome last week when he lost early to rising star Dominic Thiem.

Stan Wawrinka  cannot be discounted from defending his French Open crown. The Swiss number 2, like his compatriot Roger Federer, isn't in the greatest form but his confidence should return after last year's triumph. The defending champion is playing in Geneva this week looking for match practice.

Wawrinka has the ability to rattle the nerves of all his main rivals and if he gets in the 'zone', he will pose a huge threat again. Kei Nishikori could be a contender for the title especially if he can gain confidence by going deep in the draw. The Japanese player reached the Barcelona final and the semi-finals at both Madrid and Rome recently losing only to Nadal and Djokovic in those tournaments. Kei was close to defeating Novak in Rome which should boost his confidence further.

Other notable names to keep an eye out for over the French Open fortnight are Austrian Dominic Thiem who as already mentioned is the rising star on the ATP Tour and who has had big clay court successes already in 2016. Thiem could make an even bigger name for himself at Roland Garros and could well be a future champion.

David Ferrer is always capable of playing high quality on the clay though he is lacking in form and is seeded out of the top 8 seeds in 2016.  Milos Raonic whose transition on to clay courts has not been as fruitful as his early season hard-court form is still capable of playing solid tennis.

Lastly, never discount the French players at Roland Garros.  The likes of Gael Monfils,  Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon are very capable of causing at least one big upset between them and they will  have plenty of support from the Parisian  crowd  if they go deep into the second week of the Grand Slam.

The 2016 French Open Men's Championship has the makings of an excellent battle between the world's very best players.

Words: Chris Goldsmith (@TheTennisTalker